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No-shows stall Council

RMV, bylaws on hold

June 22, 2010


SOUTHBRIDGE — For the first time in years, the Town Council had to be rescheduled for lack of quorum Monday when five members did not show up.

According to Chairman Steven Lazo, Albert Vecchia was sick and two councilors — Denise Clemence and David Livengood — called him to say they wouldn't make it at 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., respectively. The other two — Pam Regis and Catherine Nikolla — did not call, he claimed, but Regis was seen at Webster's Annual Town Meeting in her capacity as that town's accountant.

"This was premeditated," Lazo alleged. He said he believed most of the no-shows did not attend "to stick it to him" for insisting on holding the meeting Monday. Two weeks ago, when the council set the date, Nikolla sought to have it June 28, but Lazo and Vecchia wouldn't be able to attend that day, Lazo said then.

Instead, he announced he'd be rescheduling the meeting for later this week — specifically, posting for both Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m.

"There's more drama here than in high school," said observer (and council candidate) Javier Melendez afterward. "I want a written explanation of why they weren't here."

Nikolla, Livengood and Clemence did not return calls seeking comment.

The agenda, however, was slated to include many standard re-appointments to town committees and a few potentially hot-button issues. Of the latter, the biggest was most likely to be a proposed executive session to vote on a contract; the public agenda doesn't clarify it, but the executive session agenda clearly lists it as a "lease proposal [for] 6 LaRochelle Way" — the Casaubon Senior Center.

Documents obtained by the Southbridge Evening News over the weekend (and reported in Tuesday's paper) show the issue was a long-term contract to bring the Registry of Motor Vehicles to Southbridge. The deal would give the Registry free rent for two years, then a gradually rising rent from $10,569 to $16,383 per year through year 10.

The prospect of such a deal did not sit well with resident John Gatti.

"I think it's an absolute disgrace that there's never been a town public hearing. This has all been done behind closed doors," he said, objecting to how Big Bunny (the Registry's long-time landlord before last year) was being ignored and "the message that sends to businesses" in general. He characterized the whole process as "damage control for the [Patrick] administration's decision" and a "disaster by state and local government."

Because the issue was still technically in executive session, councilors could not comment, although Conrad Vandal had indicated he expected a vote before the meeting.

Also on tap was a debate over whether to "rescind" the 2004 "reorganization" of the Board of Health from three to five members. Last week's General Government Subcommittee voted unanimously to do so, and likewise recommended starting the process to alter the charter to make that board five members officially.

"I definitely think you need five," said departing Health Board member Dean Cook before the meeting was to start. He said he'd come to indicate his concerns, but wasn't able to stay (and had departed before the adjournment).

Cook said three members creates problems in a few ways. For one, the board has been trying to create related committees — Landfill Oversight and Recycling, specifically — with two of its own panelists on each, but doing that with only three on the health board violates the Open Meeting Law. Likewise, he added, two members simply talking in public would violate the law, and having just three would make holding public hearings very difficult because all who vote have to be present for all sessions of such hearings.

Cook said he feels having five members helps ensure "a diversity of opinion," noting the most recent board included a doctor, a nurse, a veterinary tech, someone with lengthy experience in town affairs and a chemist (himself). The last two will no longer be on the board come July 1.

"Most people don't know how much power the Board of Health has," he observed. " You want good, healthy debate, and you don't get that with just three people."

To fellow member Ann Fenwick-Beinema, however, changing it could take "18 months," depending on whether the town were to call for a formal, elected Charter Review Commission (as opposed to the current appointed committee, which has less authority to make major changes) or to seek special legislation.

What wasn't on the agenda was also reportedly a concern of some councilors — a push by resident John Pulawski to have Lazo add an item to vote on appealing the recently-issued landfill permit. Pulawski was indeed making a case for that addition even after the aborted meeting, although Lazo had stated on camera that the rescheduled agenda would be the same as the one on Monday.

Pulawski, who recently made an unsuccessful e-mail plea to the state Department of Environmental Protection for a deadline extension, in which he hinted at a pre-determined outcome of a Town Council vote, said he wanted the council to address it now because the current deadline for submitting such an appeal is five days before the permit becomes effective July 1.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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